Thursday, January 14, 2010

Antonin Dvorak : Symphony No. 8. G Major. Op. 88


After his fortieth year, recognition on an international scale came to Dvorak in the 1880s. Brahms' assistance enabled his music to gain a firm foothold outside Bohemia, particularly in Germany. He had successful visits to England beginning in 1884. With the English tour gains, he was able to purchase land and a small country home for his family forty miles south of Prague. There, he composed his D Minor in 1885 and his G Major symphony in 1889. His D Minor was composed under the inspiration of Brahms' third. His seventh is a mature work of high and tragic intensity in the lineage of the German masters.
The G Major symphony is carefree and lyrical. I call it his 'Pastoral.' It is full of the folk spirit of the Czech countryside. He wrote this after he was admitted to the membership of the Emperor Franz Joseph's Czech Academy of Science, Literature and the Arts.
This symphony is constructed on a big scale for a large orchestra with a fully developed Allegro con Brio, an Adagio, a Scherzo with a waltz theme in the minor mode with a lilting Schubertian trio and a finale in variation form. Special attention has to be paid to the lovely and natural triplet upbeat and descending melodic sequence of the Adagio theme. The same theme becomes a graceful waltz in the third movement.
Like Mahler's Angelic Fourth, this symphony has its freedom from precedent of any kind. It is lyrically spontaneous though Dvorak laboured over his initial ideas and sketches, coming up with some of the finest touches and most salient melodic turns only after repeated attempts by trial and error. The sketch books clearly show the evolution of the theme that serves the finale variations of this G Major symphony. The piquant flute solo from the first movement's subject is split into two at the start of the finale with a brilliant fanfare in the trumpets. The theme is also presented in the lower strings with an occurence again of a descending melodic sequence. The sketch books of Dvorak as revealed by Jack Diether (Editor of Chord and Discord) show ten separate and different attempts to arrive at the right theme. Another good book that talks about these sketches is 'Antonin Dvorak - Musician and Craftsman' by Clapham.
When I first heard this symphony in the freshman year of my college in New Jersey in 1973, I was dumbstruck by the melodic beauty it possessed and how sublimely rustic it was. Very rarely, you are hit by pieces at first hearing. That was a rendition by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch on RCA. I have not heard a better performance still. Other noteworthy readings are London Symphony under Istvan Kertesz, Philharmonia under Wolfgang Sawallisch, Hamburg Symphony under Charles Mackerras and Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.

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